An everywoman at war

Erykah Badu lets her 'fro, freak flag, and activist colors fly
Photo by Marc Baptiste

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Erykah Badu disappeared for a bit, taking her musical incantations and majestic head wraps on a retreat into motherhood. In 2006, she flitted back onto the mainstream radar in Dave Chappelle's Block Party, a concert film that takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood and includes the comedian's closest muso pals. Badu's appearance stops the hustle and bustle of the event cold with her tiny frame and a huge glorious Afro, which blows off during her duet with Jill Scott during the Roots number "You Got Me." The movie audience I was with that day gasped in admiration as Badu let her trademark locks sail away while she continued to sing, her head and soul apparent for all to see — a diva whose resplendence and power does not rest on borrowed plumage alone.

Back then searching out Badu's whereabouts led to a stripped-down MySpace page with a selection of songs off her 2003 EP, Worldwide Underground (Motown/Island), and not much else. At one point an old press release showed up, but interjected between the normal publicist-speak were "additions" in block capital letters, which were gentle mockeries of her multiputf8um accomplishments and declarations about "paying bills" and other roadblocks appearing in her life. Her words had the feel of new life forcing its way up through the old. Two years on, that same page is a tricked-out site to behold: a dizzying pastiche of acid-rock tableaus and neo-propagandist political imagery that bears Badu's likeness — many a result of an art contest held for her fans. It was here that she chose to debut many tracks from her new album, New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (Universal/Motown).

The recording begins with an aural soup: the noise of a ghetto train ride and the booming voice of a marauder telling folks to drop off their valuables while backing vocals exhort the "Amerykahn Promise." Badu's voice emerges from this cacophony asking for explanations, a metaphor for her own post-sabbatical rebirth. With a quick costume change and tinkling prayer bells, Badu becomes a prophet with "The Healer," a meditation on the restorative properties of hip-hop, which she describes as "bigger than religion / Bigger than my niggas / Bigger than government." Never one to shy away from her role as everywoman — cue those propaganda posters — Badu emerges amid the muted horns and mellow groove of "Me," underscoring an autobiographical letter to listeners explaining her hesitance to be in the spotlight, her life as a single mother of two, and her fears of martyrdom at the hands of the entertainment industry. Her resolve at the close of the song is evident as she proclaims, "They may try to erase my face / But millions spring up in my place."

Such resolve lies at the crux of Badu's brilliance, her unerring ability to carry her vulnerability on a dais of steely resilience. Downtrodden tunes like "That Hump" offer funk-laced pipe dreams of a solo mom trying to break even: "We just need a little house / That comes with a spouse." But no matter how broken-down Badu's New Amerykah gets, there is always an undercurrent fed by the missions for social justice that Badu feels she has been called upon to fight. "Soldier" is both an exhortation and rallying cry: "To my folks think they living sweet / They gonna fuck around and push delete," she warns.

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